Augusta - Ernie Els will be sorely missed at the 76th Masters tournament this week, defending champion Charl Schwartzel said of his fellow South African on Tuesday.
Twice a runner-up at Augusta National, Els, a hugely popular figure under the Georgia pines, saw an unbroken run of Masters appearances dating to 1993 snapped when he failed to win the Houston Open last week.
That had been his final chance of grabbing a qualification spot for the year's first Major, having slipped out of the world top 50 and run out of other exemptions.
Schwartzel said that Els had been a key figure in his own march to Masters glory last year.
"You know, Gary Player was way before my time, he said.
"He put South African golf on the map and he's achieved so many things, but I never saw him hit a golf shot in his prime.
"So Ernie Els and Retief (Goosen) and Nick Price, those are the guys I used to watch growing up.
"And I watched Ernie obviously from way back when I could remember, playing in the Masters.
"He came close a few times, and I know how much this tournament means to him.
"It just feels weird. Because I play a lot of practice rounds with him in events like this and I learn so much off him.
"You know, it's sad not to see him here."
Schwartzel's upset win last year was notable for his storming finish on the Sunday, which saw him become the first player in Masters history to win by birdieing the final four holes.
Recalling the moment, he said that it had all gone by so fast that he had not even been aware that he had birdied four in a row to close.
"Then afterwards everyone started going on about the four birdies that I made. I went home and I watched it, and it looked pretty spectacular on the TV."
Now the challenge for Schwartzel is to become just the fourth player in Masters history, and the first since Tiger Woods in 2001 and 2002, to win back-to-back tiles at Augusta National.
He firmly believes he has a shot at it.
"I think always in the back of your mind now, you have a different mindset coming into this event knowing that you've won," he said.
"My first year I finished 30th, I was very pleased with it, my first year out.
"My second, you're always trying to win. Whenever you play, you're trying to win. But when it actually happens, it came quickly. I mean, I knew I could win but didn't realise it was going to happen that quickly.
"But now all of a sudden that I've done it, I almost expect myself to win. I feel like I'm playing good enough. I feel like, 'If I've done it before, why can't I do it again?'"
Schwartzel will tee of on Thursday in the company of reigning PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley and US amateur champion Kelly Kraft.